TORONTO — Seven years after Hideo Nomo’s debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers, seeing a native of Japan play Major League Baseball is no longer a novelty.
But one who speaks to the media in English? Now that’s something different.
Shigetoshi Hasegawa, the newest and least famous of three Japanese imports on the Seattle Mariners, demonstrated his linguistic skills in an interview after last Wednesday’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays.
“It took about two or three years here to get confident speaking English,” said Hasegawa, a relief pitcher who joined the Mariners from the Anaheim Angels before the season. “I live here (California, to be specific) in the offseason, and I want to stay here after my career, so it’s important for me to speak English.”
While his Seattle teammates Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuhiro Sasaki address the media only in Japanese, Hasegawa is more than happy to converse in the local language. Even Nomo, having been in the U.S. all these years, still uses a translator.
“I think Nomo can speak,” said Hasegawa. “He just doesn’t want too.”
Hasegawa ventured across the Pacific two years after Nomo — and with much less fanfare — after pitching in relative obscurity for the Orix BlueWave from 1991-96. Despite five successful seasons in Anaheim, the Angels declined to tender the 33-year-old a contract this past offseason, allowing him to become a free agent.
Hasegawa claims that the presence of two compatriots was not a factor in his decision to sign with the Mariners, but that having them as teammates has been “awesome.”
“I didn’t think about it, but after I signed the contract, I started thinking it would be great to be with them. They’ve made it easier.
“I chose Seattle mainly because we can win,” he explained. “They won 116 games last year. I also wanted to stay on the West Coast. And there’s a Japanese community in Seattle, which is good for my family.”
“Shiggy,” as the well-liked Hasegawa is called by teammates, lives in the U.S. year-round, but hasn’t forgotten his roots. He returns to Japan a few weeks of the year, and while there, makes frequent television appearances.
“I don’t really want to do the TV work, but I think it’s part of my job, too. I want to say thank you for having the chance to play baseball in Japan.”
One of Hasegawa’s teammates with Orix in the mid-’90s was a young Ichiro, who last season became the first Japanese non-pitcher to star in the majors.
“Ichiro got the batting title seven times in Japan, so he was already confident when he got here,” Hasegawa said. “I think most guys who come here for the first time are a little scared, but I didn’t see any fear in him when I faced him last year.”
Besides Ichiro, a big key to the Mariners’ success last season was a strong bullpen, which has been bolstered further with the addition of Hasegawa.
In 14 relief appearances through Thursday, he had a 3-0 record with one save and a microscopic 0.92 ERA, while holding opposing batters to a .197 average.
The native of Kobe is quick to credit others for his success at the major-league level.
“I’ve had good teammates with Anaheim and now with Seattle,” he said. “A lot of good coaches and players teaching me the skills and the mental stuff.”
A starter in Japan, Hasegawa made the adjustment to relief pitching after arriving in the majors. “I had to change a lot of things, especially my mental approach. I’m still learning from (fellow-M’s relievers) Arthur Rhodes and Jeff Nelson.”
With Nelson currently on the disabled list after surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow, Hasegawa has been used as the right-handed set-up man, but says he’ll gladly take any role he’s given.
“I can set up or be the long man. I don’t care, whatever they want me to do. I just want to stay on the team.”
The way he’s going, that shouldn’t be a problem.